a Royal Hunt

Text and photography by Bert Stephani

Becoming a hunter in Belgium is a lot more complicated than buying a gun and venturing into the forest. It requires passing a pretty testing theoretical exam followed by a series of challenging practical exams. The exams are held only once a year and it’s a tradition that the top 20 performers get an invitation for a hunt on the royal hunting grounds, a privilege that is usually only reserved for the happy few. I never came close to be top of the class on the hunting exams so when I got the chance to experience a royal hunt as a photographer, I jumped to the occasion. 

In the late afternoon I meet Jan, an obviously smart young hunter and his personal hunting guide for tonight who also happens to be the head keeper for the royal hunting grounds. It becomes immediately clear that the hunting here is not just some kind of royal gesture to justify all that tax money they get, it’s a special gift in many ways. These forests are some of the most beautiful places in the country and no effort is spared to keep them in pristine condition for man and animal. The guide is an intense man who generously shares his wealth of knowledge and experience with Jan who soaks up every whispered word.  

We move slowly, all our senses on full alert and desperately trying not to snap a dry twig. Every few meters, Jan and the guide scan the area with their binoculars looking for deer, roe deer and wild boar. I’m doing a delicate balancing act of getting some pictures without spoiling Jan’s outing. It doesn’t take long before our guide suddenly freezes. He points in the distance but I can’t see a thing from where I am standing. The guide and Jan crawl to one of the many strategically placed blinds. The rifle comes out and I see Jan peering through the scope but no shot follows. I’m invited into the cramped blind and through the guide’s binoculars I can make out two does and a fawn. I was not carrying a long lens, so you’ll have to take my word for it. The does are fair game today but as we don’t know which of the two does is the mother of the fawn, we all enjoy simply watching the trio. 

After this amazing encounter we move on, always making sure we keep the wind in our face. Although we don’t see any game for a while, we all enjoy the sights, the sounds and the smell of the forest. It’s at moments like these that I’m amazed by how good our human senses can be. 

The light is fading quickly and our guide proposes to spend the last half hour in another blind that offers a decent chance at seeing roe deer. We all squeeze into the tight blind and we wait. Twenty minutes later we see a dark form emerge from the trees. It’s a female roe deer and since some need to be culled to maintain a good natural balance, Jan clicks of the safety of his rifle. As the roe doe turns broadside the small blind is filled with the loud report of a shot. The doe goes down as if struck by lighting, she never knew what happened. As is custom we stay in the blind for a couple more minutes to let the peace descend upon the forest again.

To prevent the meat from spoiling, it’s important that the guts are removed as soon as possible. Generally the guides take care of this but Jan asks if he can do it himself. He admits that he’s never done it before and everything he knows about this task, comes from watching YouTube videos. The guide clearly appreciates that this young hunter is not afraid to get his hands dirty and learn.

The notion of time fades away with the last light and is replaced by a sort of primal truth. 

This story would not have been possible without Frederik and Jan who kindly invited me to join them on their hunts, knowing perfectly well that taking along a photographer could have had a negative impact on their hunting chances. 

The invitation to photograph this outing came in about the same time that a secret prototype of the Fujfilm X-Pro2 landed on my desk. I decided to take the plunge and shoot this story with the prototype. To give myself some flexibility and a fully weather sealed setup, I shot most of the day with the XF16-55 f2.8 zoom lens. I wanted to travel as light as possible, so I completed my kit by stuffing some batteries and the 35mm f1.4 in my right jacket pocket. As a backup, I put my X100T in the left pocket. 

I had played around with the new camera for a couple of days before to get used to it. Having shot a lot with the X-Pro1, it was pretty easy to move on to the X-Pro2. The only thing that bothered me at times is the back button focussing. On the X-Pro1, I've always used the AF-L button to focus with my thumb but on the X-Pro2 I found it ergonomically better to assign the AE-L button to function as the AF-L button. By now my muscle memory is retrained but in the first days, I've pushed the wrong button repeatedly. 

I shot pretty much everything in aperture priority with auto ISO, just riding the exposure compensation if necessary. The biggest technical challenge for me was to shoot for JPEG-files as I knew I wouldn't have access to the Lightroom RAW presets I've created for my hunting photography until Adobe adds support for the RAW-files of this new camera. I've selected the ProNeg S film simulation, set noise reduction to -4, color to 0, Sharpness to +1 and Highlight Tone was set to -1 to preserve details in the bright parts. Throughout the day I changed the Shadow Tone setting repeatedly to get a good mix between the kind of shadows that I wanted and giving myself some detail with post processing in mind. 

Every sound decreases the hunter's chance of succes, so I activated the electronic shutter for totally silent operation. Due to the technical limitations of electronic shutters there's always a risk of unwanted artefacts, certainly with low shutter speeds, but I didn't experience a single glitch. 

At the end of the day in pretty much total darkness, I switched the 16-55 for the 35mm f1.4 to gather the very last photons of the day. 

I've shot most of my ongoing project about hunting (book will be finished in 2016) with the X-Pro1 and even though the X-T1 has become my main tool because of it's technological improvements over the X-Pro1, I still prefer the rangefinder-style form factor. With the X-Pro2 I have the best of both worlds and more:

- weather sealing and dual memory cards offer protection and peace of mind
- the AF has taken a big leap forwards again and the joystick makes selecting AF-points a breeze
- even though the camera pretty much looks the same as it's older brother, it feels more secure in my hands
- we now get 24 megapixels and the sensor still offers this unique Fujifilm magic
- despite the extra pixels, there's at least one more stop of useable high ISO sensitivity.